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Pittsfield Council Mulls Mental-Health Responder Solutions
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
07:09PM / Wednesday, May 25, 2022
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Mental health supports were a reoccurring topic at the City Council meeting on Tuesday.

The panel took up three new petitions that strive to answer the community's ask for improved responders for residents who are in crisis. The city's deficiency of mental health responders was brought to light after Miguel Estrella died at the hands of Pittsfield Police in late March.

During open microphone, residents also said the city's nearly $12 million police budget, which was passed last week, needs to reflect such efforts. 

"I was quite shocked, actually, after four years of being on the council and going through the budget process to read in the paper that the police budget had been passed on the first night of budget debates," former Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon said.

"It's never, in my experience, been so upfront in the schedule and so I know that there are many people in the community that were really disappointed to not be a part of that conversation, to join you in this council chamber to discuss that."

Estrella's sister Elina Estrella also stated that she wished there was a follow-up communication from the council so that they could discuss the police budget.

A petition from President Peter Marchetti, at-Large Councilor Pete White, Ward 3 Councilor Kevin Sherman, and resident Tonya Frazier requests that the state and federal delegation assist with finding additional funding and resources to improve the Mental Health services in Pittsfield was approved.

"In this community, we hear loud and clear, and many of us feel loud and clear from people that we know, that the mental health services that we have in Pittsfield are not adequate, we need more funding and we need more resources," White said.

"And when we say funding, it's not a resources issue necessarily that the city could solve, we need to make sure that when agencies are hiring their staff, their staff is being paid at a level that will keep them here that will attract new staff, and that we can have consistency in the mental health care that is provided here, and then with more funding and more resources from our state and federal delegation, more alternatives can be enacted beyond the Brien Center's crisis team, we need more services at the hospital."

He added that the city needs more than what it can provide through the budget and that the state needs to provide such resources "first and foremost."

Sherman said mental illness touches most people's lives in some way and highlighted the importance of addressing it.

"This is a huge issue in the city that crosses all boundaries it's not exclusive to one area, one demographic, all of us have been touched by it, perhaps more than COVID, cancer any other disease there is, we've all been touched our families ourselves by the mental health crisis that's going on throughout," he explained.

"And we talk a lot about funding, funding what can the city do? We're trying to put our money where our mouth is, our last budget meeting in regards to responders, in regards to mental health professionals within the city walls,"

"The state, however, controls much of what happens in regards to the mental health services throughout the state, throughout our city, and we need the help of our delegation, they're great partners, we need to reach out to them."

Sherman said this is a step and will not solve anything but will begin conversations with actions that follow.

A petition from Ward 1 Councilor Kenneth Warren requesting $75,000 be appropriated for the purpose of evaluating the creation of an Alternative for Community Emergency Services was referred to Mayor Linda Tyer and the committee of the whole.

Warren also wants to invite Amherst officials to discuss topics such as the investigation, the creation, the availability of grant funding, and the operation of an alternative program because the town is in the process of implementing one.  

The price tag of $75,000 is an estimate.

Warren's other petition to support the enactment of H2519 an Act to create Alternatives for Community Emergency Services at the request of the local Berkshire County branch of the NAACP was approved and sent to the state delegation and the Committee of the Whole.

At the time of the meeting, the bill was still awaiting approval.

The council also spoke about the use of nonlethal weapons with Police Lt. Gary Traversa after it was revealed that the BolaWraps purchased with an Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grant have not been used and are not carried on police. 

The fiscal 2021 grant of about $40,000 was used to purchase 15 BolaWraps, 35 tasers, and BolaWrap cartridges.

Traversa described the restraint devices as being similar to lassos and reported that none of them have been deployed. The devices, which are similar in size to a wallet, reportedly don't fit on the police toolbelts and are kept in the cruisers.

White speculated that the wraps were seemingly oversold, as he was under the impression that they would do more. He wants to look at the policies behind the devices.

"We're looking at trying to find solutions to some of the things we've had happened in our community and we all had high hopes on these BolaWraps being deployed more often in situations of disarmament," White said.

"And if they're not going to be useful, maybe we have to look at what the next thing is and see if we can find those instead of looking at maintaining these and any money that goes towards potentially buying new ones when they haven't been deployed in a year."

A preliminary investigation by the Pittsfield Police Department has found the responding officers to have been in compliance with established guidelines for use of force. The incident is also under a separate investigation by the State Police.

Earlier this month, the city voted to endorse body cameras on Pittsfield Police Officers.

The Police Advisory and Review Board is also reviewing the situation and brainstorming solutions.

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